A democracy without guardrails

American voters are no longer sending legislators to Washington to represent them, they are sending them to Washington with marching orders. And they are following every key vote on blogs and cable television.

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/FILE
A SIGN POINTS TOWARD A POLLING PLACE IN NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA, NOV. 6, 2018.

When the American founders established the republic, did they equip it with training wheels or guardrails?

It is safe to say that when the United States became independent there was the very real chance that it might fail. Beyond the lingering threat of the British and the divisions between states’ rights and federalism, there was an altogether more immediate peril.

The people themselves.

Yes, America was perhaps the world’s grandest experiment in individual liberty and self-government. But the Founders were deeply worried that the people could ruin everything, too.

So they hedged their bets. They hemmed in the power of the popularly elected House of Representatives with the Senate, which was elected by state legislators. They gave a class of elite electors the ability to overrule the voters through the Electoral College. That was a key theme in the development of American democracy: People ultimately had the power, but in many cases, they didn’t wield it directly. There were buffers to temper the voice of the people and make decisions on their behalf.

This became the case in other parts of American politics, too. Take presidential primaries or the basic act of legislating. The classic “smoke-filled rooms” were how politicians chose presidential nominees or made compromises – very intentionally away from public eyes.

Those buffers of American democracy are now almost completely gone. Were they training wheels that helped us get going? Or were they guardrails that protected us from ourselves?

At every turn, American democracy is becoming more direct. The popular election of the Senate is only the most obvious example. More deeply, American voters are no longer sending legislators to Washington to represent them, they are sending them to Washington with marching orders. And they are following every key vote on blogs and cable television. Voters are taking control.

This is true across the political spectrum. In his cover story this week, staff writer Peter Grier shows dramatically how the power of one of those traditional buffers – political parties – has decayed. Parties used to be able to set policy, discipline members, and maintain rigid control. In the last presidential election, how well did the parties control Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?

This is a natural development. Democracies tend to become more direct over time. After all, voters want to have more power, not less. But with this realization comes another. The Washington of today is more directly our creation. We hold the power. After the 2012 election, for example, Republican Party leadership backed immigration reform. But Republican voters would have none of it. The voters set the agenda and voted in the president they wanted. The same trend is now happening among Democrats, reshaping policy around economics, race, and justice.

This is not inherently good or bad. It just means that, more than ever, the finger of responsibility is now pointing back at us.

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